Democrats' Energy Bill Efforts Are Running Out of Gas

Democrats are battling the calendar in their efforts to pass an energy bill.

By + More

The Democrats’ inability to move an energy bill through Congress has been a major disappointment to those who thought Barack Obama’s election meant an end to the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels. Despite their early optimism, buoyed by the successful passage in the House of a cap-and-trade energy tax bill, it’s looking more and more like nothing moves in the Senate before August.

“The most likely scenario for energy and climate legislation is that the Senate will pass no bill at all prior to the August recess,” says Capital Alpha Partners’ James Lucier, whose firm puts the odds of no bill “at 40 percent and rising.”

Part of the problem is the calendar. With a draft bill expected no sooner than the week of July 26, the effort to pass something—anything--runs up against the Democrats’ need to proceed to a vote on the confirmation of Elena Kagan and other business that should take them right up to the start of the break.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on Elena Kagan's Supreme Court nomination.]

They likely won’t get much help from the Republicans, who seem to be rejecting the idea that the now-capped well in the Gulf of Mexico provides a sufficient reason to move faster. “You have a crisis over here and you try to use that as an excuse to pass a piece of legislation over here,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday. “I think there are things in the energy area we could and should do. What I am not interested in doing is using the oil spill as an excuse to pass a national energy tax.”

[See who supports McConnell.]

It would be one thing if there was broad agreement on a specific approach. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could twist enough arms and secure a GOP defection or two to get something through, but as Lucier points out, nobody agrees on what the bill should look like. “There is no consensus on a positive agenda that touches all four bases--carbon, renewable electricity, efficiency, oil spill--and gets to sixty votes,” says Lucier. “Meanwhile, there is a long list of guaranteed ‘No’ votes on issues that split the Democratic caucus: carbon, EPA regulation, rural coops, transmission, offshore royalties, offshore drilling, ethanol, oil and gas tax increases, and more."

[See which members of Congress get the most from the electric utilities industry.]

Compounding the problem is that there are a number of House members who, having voted for the energy tax back when it looked like a certainty, now find themselves exposed and vulnerable in an increasingly hostile political climate. They want the Senate to act so they can get a bill to a conference committee, ostensibly to iron out the differences that exist between the bills, but in reality to give incumbents the opportunity to cast a few votes to blur the issue and provide political cover.

In the face of this pressure it is possible Reid will try to keep the Senate in session past the start of the scheduled break in order to get something done before Labor Day--but that would put him at odds with members of his own caucus, who, seeing a national environment that is increasingly favorable to the Republicans and puts control of the Senate in play, feel the need to get home and campaign--Reid among them. It is just possible that, as far as a major energy bill goes, the Democrats have run out of gas.

  • Check out this month’s best political cartoons.
  • See a slide show of a reality check on U.S. energy sources.
  • See which members of Congress get money from the electric utilities industry.